ANFIELD’S away dressing-room door will be locked at around 7.45pm tonight and John McGlynn, the Hearts manager, will then set about extracting every ounce of nervous energy from his players.
It’s a task he performs particularly well, by all accounts. He did it last week when Liverpool visited Tynecastle but it’s perhaps a more vital job ahead of the return match at one of British football’s most iconic venues.
McGlynn’s largely inexperienced Hearts team starts with a slim chance of overturning the 1-0 aggregate deficit in this Europa League play-off. That they have any chance at all is guaranteed to mean some nervous players. Before they trot down the stairs under the famous “This is Anfield” sign, McGlynn will sit them down calmly for some words of wisdom.
Liverpool may include players of the calibre of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez in their starting line-up, which can only add to the pre-match tension within the Hearts camp. If you’re 17-year-old Callum Paterson, for example, football doesn’t get much more daunting.
McGlynn knows how his players will feel. He hasn’t been their manager for long but he’s used the time wisely, getting to know those he wasn’t already familiar with and taking note of each individual’s personality. His address to his team minutes before they leave the dressing-room this evening may well be one of the most important he ever delivers.
“Last week I stayed very calm and focused and tonight I’ll be the same,” McGlynn told the Evening News. “We have a young squad, inexperienced at this level, and I think the occasion itself will make them quite up for it and nervous. I’ll be trying to stay calm and go about things my own way. We’ll give as much information to the players and give them as much belief as we possibly can. Motivation will be there and the team will be set up as well as it possibly can be.”
Whether Gerrard, Suarez or any other Liverpool superstars start the match, Hearts have a gameplan designed to keep them subdued. Players will be told to deny Gerrard space, especially given his penchant for long-range shots at goal.
“We set up last week to play against these lads so, if they play, we will know exactly what we want to do with them,” continued McGlynn. “Liverpool have many players who can hurt you, as we saw last week even with Gerrard and Suarez not involved. At the weekend they drew with Manchester City, who have spent even more money than Liverpool. That shows the calibre of team we’re playing against.
“We understand Gerrard is a very good player and that he plays close to Suarez. That’s something we paid particular attention to in our build-up last week. If he plays tonight, take it as read that our boys will be told to shut him down.”
One of those entrusted with that task will be Darren Barr, who should start in a holding midfield role with Marius Zaliukas likely to be fit to play in central defence. McGlynn’s request for total focus already appears to have struck a chord with the former Falkirk captain.
“Anfield is somewhere I’ve never seen,” he said. “It’s a brilliant stadium and brilliant pitch but at the end of the day we’re down here to do a job. The gaffer’s said a few times to us that we need to play our game. There has to be a desire and determination to get something out of the game. We can’t come down here for nothing.
“They have world-class players here. We just need to step up to the plate, we can’t come here to play the occasion, we need to come and play the game. It’s one thing coming down here to play in these stadiums but we want to give a good account of ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in the occasion and the atmosphere but we need to try and avoid that. We will have a great support here and we want to give them something to cheer about.
“It’s definitely the most high-profile stadium I’ve played at. I know what it means to the whole club and it means a lot to myself as well. It’s a massive occasion, but we aren’t down here just to make this an occasion. We’re here to give something for our own fans and for ourselves. We want to show we can play. This is the biggest game of my career. Usually it’s only in friendlies that you get to play these teams so you need to relish this.”
For McGlynn, there is the added predicament of getting the tactical mix correct. Hearts need to score to level the tie on aggregate but cannot afford to attack at will. Losing a goal to Liverpool at any stage tonight would all but eliminate them. The difficulty of scoring away from home in Europe is illustrated by the fact Hearts’ last goal from open play in continental competition was eight years ago, when Robbie Neilson struck the winner in Basel.
“I didn’t think we were that far away from scoring last week. We had some good opportunities,” said McGlynn. “Tonight we need to do the same: make Liverpool a bit nervous and try to get some shots at Pepe Reina’s goal. Whether we score in the first minute or the last, as long as we get one more goal than Liverpool then the least we do is take the tie into extra-time.
“We still believe it’s a possibility but we have to play every bit as well as last week, possibly even better.
“We need everybody on form. As much as we need to score, we also need to defend well in every area of the pitch. I said before last week’s game that, if the scoreline read ‘Liverpool 0’ at the end, then we’d have a chance. Tonight, the same applies. We just need everyone concentrating on their jobs and, when we do get the ball, we need to pass it.
“We can’t be stupid and have the tie over very quickly because we haven’t done our jobs as well as last week. The longer it goes without Liverpool scoring, the more chance we have. I remember Robbie’s goal against Basel actually. It was when John Robertson was in charge.”
McGlynn was part of the Tynecastle coaching staff back then. If his team pulls off the unthinkable tonight, the memory will live with him till his dying day.